European Union

EU virus rescue plan in balance as leaders clash

Agence France-Presse, Agence France-Presse
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has insisted member states retain final approval of EU funding – an effective veto – for national recovery plans for the likes of Spain and Italy

European Union leaders wrangled over the size and rules of their huge post-coronavirus economic recovery plan Saturday, July 18, seeking to overcome fierce resistance from the Netherlands and its “frugal” friends in a second day of intense debate.

European Council president Charles Michel proposed a fresh plan after his initial blueprint for a 750-billion-euro ($850 billion) package ran into stiff resistance from the richer northern member states.

“There’s a very tough battle in the offing,” a senior diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse, predicting the marathon talks would take at least 12 more hours, stretching into early Sunday and could then still fail.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has insisted member states retain final approval of EU funding – an effective veto – for national recovery plans for the likes of Spain and Italy, whose economies were ravaged by the virus and its lockdowns.

He says EU oversight is necessary to oblige countries to reform their labor markets to make them better able to cope with future crises.

In a concession to Rutte’s demands, Michel’s new plan includes a “super emergency brake” that gives any country a 3-day window to trigger a review by all member states of another’s spending plans.

An official from a non-frugal state insisted that this does not amount to a right of veto, but admitted that it remains to be seen whether countries such as Spain and Italy will accept the compromise.

Meanwhile, a European source said the frugal countries were still not happy with the broader package and were seeking more cuts.

“There are many more issues to solve but the proposal on governance as put forward by Michel is a serious step in the right direction,” a Dutch diplomat said, but warned “many issues remain”.

A Spanish source, however, expressed concern about the gesture to the Netherlands’ concerns.

“Governance remains an obstacle,” the Madrid delegation source said, referring to the emergency brake.

“It’s positive that the size of the plan has been maintained, but we’re studying the details.”

Right of veto

Before talks with all 27 leaders restarted, Michel held a roundtable with Rutte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Italian and Spanish PMs to test out his new proposal. After brief session with all 27 members, they broke off again for more consultations.

The leaders of some smaller countries – Belgium, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta – left the venue to enjoy drinks and chips on a sunny square, while France, Germany, Italy and Spain faced off against the Frugals.

Michel’s new proposal would keep the total recovery budget at 750 million euros, but shift the balance slightly from grants – down from 500 million to 450 million – to loans, which rise from 250 million to 300 million, according to a document seen by AFP.

While Rutte was alone in his hard line on the need for unanimous approval of grants, Austria also raised objections.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wants the recovery fund to be smaller, tweeting late on Friday to reject the initial plan for 500 billion euros in grants and subsidies and insist countries reform their “broken systems”.

As a further sweetener for Austria, the Netherlands and the other “frugals” – Sweden and Denmark – Michel’s new plan sees a hike in the rebates they get on their EU contributions.

‘Zero grants’

But more problems lie ahead. A European diplomat told AFP if the member states agree on the volume of plan, “then I am quite optimistic”.

But the diplomat warned that the frugals would not be content with reducing the amount of grants to 450 billion euros and would push for more to become loans, subject to repayment. “They wanted zero grants,” he said.

What EU officials call the “Rule of Law” issue will also be a stumbling block. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban could yet veto any attempt to tie budget funds to states upholding European legal standards.

And the rescue package is in addition to the planned 7-year EU budget – worth more than one trillion euros – that the leaders must also discuss even if and when they agree the rescue package. –